Close this search box.

well established and here for you

independently owned and operated since 1977

Unmasking the Mask–Maker

by Rebecca M. Alvin

Top Image: Photo by Mike Sullivan

Ornate and decadent, yet composed of elements from the natural world like peacock feathers, flowers, and branches as much as jewels, shards of broken mirror, and found objects, Mike Sullivan’s masks, crowns, and headpieces evoke dichotomies, split personality, clashes of materials, ideas, and ideals. And yet the dramas within them ultimately feel balanced. Although Sullivan did have one pop-up show here at Studio Lacombe in 2019, his exhibition at the Schoolhouse Gallery, opening this weekend, is his first real show in Provincetown.

Mask and crown designer, New York City nightlife photographer, promising young actor—these are his creative identities, the faces he shows as an artist. But Sullivan’s work reveals so much about the 27-year-old’s deeply personal journey and his openness to chance and experimentation along the way.

Raised by his mother, whom he describes as a very creative, crafty woman, in a small town in Connecticut, Sullivan stumbled into mask-making while studying theater at Ithaca College in Upstate New York. He explains, “It was for a Shakespeare class that we had to learn how to make masks and perform in them and kind of embody that performance style of having your face taken away but only wearing a mask. So it was a cool experience having that class, but then also making the physical thing itself I just really enjoyed. So I really took to that, just started exploring with costumes.”

Photo by Mike Sullivan

After graduating, Sullivan went to New York City to perform as a stage actor, but also immersed himself in the nightlife there. Sullivan found in that scene an openness, a live-out-loud quality that drew him in. “The queer community everywhere is very vibrant and expressive and creative, and so I really got to throw myself into that community fully, and that was what really inspired a lot of what I’m doing now,” Sullivan says. “So as a photographer I loved capturing other people, as a creator myself it inspired me to create my own pieces, and as a performer, the dominoes kept falling and feeding into each other.”

New York is an expensive place and he was only able to live there because of the hospitality of his extended family who live on Long Island. But while Sullivan is clear his family has always supported him as a queer person and shown him unconditional love, kindness, and acceptance, these family members also hold very conservative views, supported Donald Trump, and watched FOX News.

 “It was awkward for me as a young, gay kid, and it was during the 2016 election, so it was obviously intense as f**k,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘How can I be true to myself, how can I express my queerness, how can I support other queers and yet still be [palatable] enough for this conservative household?’”

Photo by Mike Sullivan

While it may not have been a deliberate choice, the masks reflect concerns about identity. They evoke the Venetian masks worn in antiquity, which served to conceal identities and afford wearers opportunities to engage in transgressive behaviors, something that eventually lead to their being banned by the Catholic Church. This is connected to Sullivan’s personal experiences, and the materials he chooses to work with are important. For example, the flowers that appear in many of his crowns serve a specific function in addition to their beauty.

“There’s a neutrality to [natural materials],” he says. “ I wanted to be extreme, but I didn’t want to be extreme in a way that would deter [my family] from hearing or seeing what I was doing or appreciating what I was doing. So I would work with flowers and nature and be like, ‘You can’t hate this. Like you can’t hate a bunch of flowers. No matter how conservative you are,’” he explains. “If I’m going to be super gay and wearing a dress and stuff,  you might think that’s gross, but if I’m making a beautiful headpiece out of flowers, I don’t care who you are, you’re going to like the flowers…. you can’t see nature and be weirded out by it, you know?”

Likewise, the shards of mirror merely reflect reality, so there is nothing to argue with. He admits he was initially drawn to materials like cardboard, flowers, and the mirror that broke in his room, because they were readily available and he wasn’t ready to commit to this type of art yet; he was experimenting with the creative process and not yet sure enough to invest in a lot of professional materials. The larger meaning of the materials took hold later. But this, too, seems like a natural part of his creative path. The resulting works are so unique and thrilling because of these choices of material combined in provocative ways.

Photo by Mike Sullivan

The fact that the crowns are crowns is also significant. These are not run-of-the-mill hats; they are very specifically crowns. Sullivan explains the choice in several ways: “It was a means to kind of connect people but also show everyone’s individuality…It is theatrical, it is exciting, it is heightened, but then the idea that we’re all misplaced monarchs, misplaced royalty, you know, it’s playful to speak on, to say out loud. That idea that we all should treat ourselves like royalty, it sounds so silly, but the idea that to feel empowered, to truly feel at peace with yourself is to feel royal, to feel special, I think that’s why I took to these and why people take to them, as well,” he says. “As a theatrical performer we were always told you’re here to affect an audience, you’re here to make change, and you’re here to touch people, so a lot of what I’ve made has been in response to what people enjoy participating in. And a lot of people enjoy weraring crowns,” he laughs.

Sullivan says he never would have moved to Provincetown if it weren’t for the pandemic, even as he’s visited often and always found it to be an incredibly unique and supportive environment. Perhaps he would have ended up here anyway, as life takes mysterious turns for us all and it seems right that someone with Sullivan’s sensibilities would end up here. Drawn to the drag scene, he admits he is “terrible” at drag because he doesn’t have good makeup skills, but his extroverted personality and theatrical training come through in his incredible creations.

Photo by Mike Sullivan

The Schoolhouse show will feature Sullivan’s photographs of people wearing his pieces, as well as the pieces themselves, copies of his photography books, and hopefully, he says, some sort of performative element, as he sees that as essential to his work. These masks are not easy to walk around in and are more objets d’arts, however, Sullivan sees them as interactive works. In fact, it’s only since coming to Provincetown that he’s become aware of the pieces as standalone artworks.

“As a performer and as a nightlife person, I’ve always made stuff to be consumed and experienced through performance or through photography or through experiencing it. You know, like when I make a mask, it’s made to be worn, it’s made to be seen on in a video or in a performance. It’s meant to be interactive. And it wasn’t until I came here this past year that people would see the pieces that I made and they’re like, ‘Oh I just want that for my kitchen table,’” he says incredulously. “That has been a really cool experience.”

Michael Sullivan’s work is on view at the Schoolhouse Gallery, 494 Commercial St., Provincetown, May 28 – June 30. There is an opening reception on Friday, May 28, 6 – 8 p.m. with pandemic protocols in place. For more information call 508.487.4800 or visit

Recent Posts

Sign up for our Newsletter

Scroll to Top

Sign up for our Newsletter

Graphic Artist

Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

Keep in touch

Fill in your details and I will get back to you in no time.

Phone: + 1 508-487-1000 ext 6
[email protected] 14 Center St. Provincetown MA, 02657